I. Critical Distances
An intimate affair, America’s coming of age happened in 1915. There was no party or fanfare, just Van Wyck Brooks’s essay, “America’s Coming of Age,” the first consequential look at the previous century of American literature and therefore the first significant work of Americanist criticism. Curiously, the call for Americanist criticism antedates American literature itself, as if the polemical reviews were written before the critics saw the movie — or the movie was even made. The most notable of these prophecies was that of the conservative Fisher Ames, who was skeptical in his 1803 essay “American Literature” about whether democracy would be fertile soil for quality literary production. Though the overall tenor of the essay stated otherwise, Ames reluctantly conceded that eventually “nature…will produce some men of genius, who will be admired and imitated.” Thus Americanist criticism has always been a slightly cynical, ungainly, and ill-timed enterprise.
Brooks served as a beacon to younger critics, who emulated his politics and cultivated an interest in what were quaintly referred to as “our native works.” A 2001 biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor, one of the major Americanist critics of the generation after Brooks, cites him as an inspirational figure, “a spiritual forebear.” Brooks was a Harvard man (as was Arvin, class of 1920) of a sophisticated and ornery sort: a socialist, he preached that materialism crushed the spirit of American literature. Coining the terms we now use freely, Brooks split authors into “highbrow” and “lowbrow” and called for American writers to shake off the twin yokes of Puritanism and commericalism. This sparked a real debate among the literary folk schooled in H.L. Mencken and magazine culture: Could art rise above business in America, a land so famously consumed with commerce and conformity?
Arvin heeded Brooks’s call to arms, but rather than producing art itself, he chose criticism. He justified this choice in a letter to his closest friend: “Perhaps in a period like ours the man who does really first-rate criticism in the service of American letters will prove to be of more value in the long run than the men who content themselves with mediocre creative work.” Barry Werth, the author of The Scarlet Professor, asserts that for Arvin, “Literary criticism was social criticism, a nobler calling.” The sense of criticism as a vocation comes shining through here, casting Arvin as a tireless crusader in the name of high-quality prose. By choosing to follow Brooks Arvin was electing to be among the elite 1930’s intellectuals who wanted to explain American culture to the American masses, an endeavor motivated by a zealous, almost patriotic commitment to criticism which they argued was endemic to the American condition as a culture founded on pamphlets and philosophy.
Hearing the call of criticism at the same time as Arvin was F.O. Matthiessen — Matty to his friends — who was an undergraduate at Yale while Arvin was at Harvard. After graduation, Matthiessen spent two years at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. His thesis at Yale had been on Oliver Goldsmith (“Literature at Yale had still meant English literature,” as he later recollected), and his first book, adapted from his Oxford work, was on Elizabethan translation. It was not until he started graduate work at Harvard, after returning from England, that he discovered American literature. In an essay entitled “The Education of A Socialist,” Matthiessen wrote plaintively, “It is appalling how much can get left out of an American education.” Such were his reflections on reading nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman, who wrote extensively about the region of Ohio where Matthiessen had lived as a child. Mattheissen also described how his Oxford experience made him self-conscious — or merely conscious, for the first time — about his national identity. “I was first rebuffed and then angered by [an] Oxford boy’s ignorant scorn of America, by what finally struck me as a colossal provincialism on their part.” Mattheissen’s reaction to being treated as a provincial was to retreat into a kind of provincial studies, American criticism, a field more exciting than the English literature he had trained in for being inchoate and deeply personal.
Along with Parkman and Oxford, reading Walt Whitman was what compelled Mattheissen to go native at Harvard; Whitman, Matthiessen wrote, “helped me to learn to trust the body.” Whitman was a key figure for both Mattheissen and Arvin, both for intellectual, political, and biographical reasons. To briefly catalog, Whitman was at once a patriotic American, a homosexual, and a left-leaning enthusiast of sensual and natural life. Arvin and Matthiessen were both closeted homosexuals with long histories of depression, which can account for their attraction to Whitman, a man with similar dilemmas who was able to write himself out of his melancholy. Arvin unsuccessfully attempted suicide twice, and died of cancer after losing his job as a result of a scandal in 1963. Matthiessen sadly succeeded, ending his life by jumping out of the window of a Boston hotel room in 1950.
The sense of alienation of these second-generation critics mirrors that of the writers they championed. The towering figures in the
nineteenth-century Americanist canon are the ones Matthiessen discussed in his masterful work, American Renaissance, though this seems a chicken-egg dilemma confused by perfect hindsight: are they major because he chose them, or were they major and thus were chosen? There were two essayists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two fiction writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and a poet, Walt Whitman (Edgar Allan Poe, H.W Longfellow, and any and all women writers are all significant and deliberate omissions). Arvin’s major work deals largely in the same universe as Matthiessen’s: he wrote highly praised biographies of Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and the then and still unfashionable Longfellow. Unlike the British literary canon, which teems with upper-middle-class and titled men, the Americans were largely failures, commercially and personally (again, with the exception of Harvard professor Longfellow): Hawthorne a brooder, Melville a perennially poor seller, Thoreau a career loner. This raises another chicken-egg kind of question: Were the critics attracted to the misery in these writings (Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, even Walden are the works of magnificent, restless, unsatisfied souls) and thus chose to make them worthy objects of study, or did studying such miserable writers push them to some sort of contretemps?
Matthiessen published American Renaissance in 1941, the first work to surpass Brooks’s “America’s Coming of Age” in influence. The first line of his acknowledgements makes his debt clear: “All my reading of American literature has been done during the era of Van Wyck Brooks.” Yet Brooks had lost his appeal for Matthiessen by the time of his A Flowering of New England (1936). Matthiessen complains “he had relaxed his standards,” shifting his concern from depths to “surfaces.” As far as criticism goes, to deal in surfaces is to do no one any good, for criticism acquires legitimacy by dissecting, anatomizing, and exposing what is underneath. One can quibble about structuralism or authorial intention or criteria for greatness, but criticism is essentially an interpretive exercise that acquires legitimacy through repetition and derivation; brilliant critics who write outside of an accepted methodology are often left out of the genealogy like illegitimate children. It should be noted, though, that Brooks’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Flowering deals largely with the same time and place as Mattheissen’s American Renaissance (though he has a lot more to say about Longfellow and Oliver Holmes than Melville and Whitman), so that the critical revolution was not in changing the scene so much as the way it was set.
Mattheissen’s casting off of Brooks in the space of a preface is instructive, as it illustrates how Americanist criticism has incorporated the age-old theme of coming of age as rebellion. Arvin, Matthiessen, and others of their generation, including Matthiessen’s Harvard colleague Perry Miller and Arvin’s friend Granville Hicks, produced a magnificent body of criticism that helped to establish the canon we retain, somewhat enlarged, today. This second generation solidified the works now canonized as American classics and delved into what history had to do with it (an old historicism, no doubt, but an important one). Never one to succumb to the luxury of the then new New Criticism which would occlude the world outside of the work, this second generation of Americanist criticism is by and large the product of political radicals, and the work reflects the world accordingly by discussing the material conditions of production and the personal circumstances of the writers and their work. Both Matthiessen and Arvin were most productive in the period between the Spanish Civil War and World War II and though their specific political engagements and affiliations varied — Matthiessen was a Christian Socialist, Arvin a Communist — each took his stance on the left quite seriously. After the era of American isolationism and exceptionalism which birthed Brooks, succumbing to the impulse to look back at the literature and culture of the nineteenth century was tantamount to answering the questions Ames posed about democracy and art in the affirmative. These critics proclaimed for the first time that we, as Americans, made art, and what we made was worthwhile, even if no one bought it.
II. Critical Dramas
Though Arvin was a big man in the field, Werth reminds us constantly that he was a small man in most other ways: shy, slight, entirely unprepossessing. The Scarlet Professor gives a rather perfunctory account of Arvin’s career, as is much more invested in Arvin’s smallness and scandalousness than in his work. Werth plays a biographer’s funhouse trick in magnifying the personal and avoiding the work, since work was everything to Arvin, his millstone and his solace. One of his colleagues remembers, “Writing for him was always an arduous and grim discipline…and bad writing, he once said to me, is a kind of immorality.” But writing is just the beginning of his heartaches, to hear him tell it in the introduction to a collection of his essays, American Pantheon, which was published posthumously in 1966:
The staple of life is certainly suffering, though surely not its real meaning, and we differ mainly in our capacity to endure it — or be diverted from it. I myself never found it consoling to have this denied or minimized: it seems to me to give one some strength just to know that pain is normal, and disappointment the rule, and disquiet the standard — and that the things that have the other quality (work, friendship, the arts) are the wonderful incredible exception & mitigation.
In Arvin’s experience, life is suffering, and work is the only consistent release from that suffering. Yet Arvin reached a point where work simply did not alleviate his pain and loneliness anymore, and he turned to something else which Werth finds much more intriguing. Arvin started cruising, and his method was fascinating: he went searching for something young, vital, and aggressive to rub up against. Werth writes, “He found more excitement, more life, in five minutes of groping a stranger at a highway rest stop than in a year of faculty meetings.” Although faculty meetings are certainly one of life’s trials, the point was that something besides work provided Arvin with some pleasure. But Werth’s ignoring the work in favor of the suffering it produced does Arvin a huge disservice: it turns him into a case study rather than a critic of consequence.
Mattheissen has not fared much better biographically. Two book-length biographies of Matthiessen focus on his politics and criticism: F.O. Matthiessen: The Critical Achievement by Giles Gunn (1975) and F.O. Matthiessen: Christian Socialist as Critic by Frederick C. Stern (1981) [another biography, which one hopes will tell a fuller story, is in progress now]. To read them is to abnegate the private life of a man who undervalued it himself, though perhaps we should be grateful that the likes of Werth have not discovered him yet. Not until the publication of Rat and the Devil in 1978, a collection of letters between Matthiessen and his longtime lover, the older, hard-drinking, and very wealthy patrician painter Russell Cheney, did critics begin to speculate about how Matthiessen’s relationship with Cheney and his closeted status might have affected his work. Matthiessen “shared intimately more than twenty years of his life” with Cheney, as one of his biographers gently puts it, yet he goes all but unmentioned in the special issue of the Monthly Review his friends published as a tribute after his suicide. Love apparently was subordinate to work in this life as well. Matthiessen chose discretion in order to teach, continue his political activities, and to write. His understanding of himself as a homosexual was that it was his nature, and that it was a “force infinitely stronger and nobler than myself.” With material like this to explicate, there must be a balance between the salaciousness of The Scarlet Professor and the impersonal account of Mattheissen in the books above, both of which are of recent enough vintage to have some stake in the private life of their subject.
Werth characterizes relations between Matthiessen and Arvin as mainly friendly, but not close: Matthiessen had positively reviewed Arvin’s Hawthorne (at the suggestion of mutual friend Edmund Wilson), as well as his 1938 Whitman biography. When American Renaissance appeared in 1941, Arvin was hospitalized for depression, as Matthiessen had also been on several occasions (not surprisingly, they were even at the same hospitals, though never at the same time). Werth characterizes the relationship as “publicly admiring, though privately dismissive,” but acknowledges that Matthiessen’s suicide did nothing to elevate Arvin’s already low mood on the verge of the publication of Herman Melville (1950). The implication is that his own thorough, thoughtful biographies might not stand up to the glamour of such a thundering work as AR, or that Mattheissen’s suicide might be a harbinger of things to come. Werth never reaches this conclusion, though, as he fails to survey the other achievements in Americanist criticism during Arvin’s lifetime, like Granville Hicks’s The Great Tradition (1933), Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950), and R.W.B. Lewis’s The American Adam (1955), and Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness (1956).
Werth’s proclivity for gossip is served by the fact that many of the men in Arvin’s life were noteworthy figures in their own right. To wit, Werth’s book reconstructs the close and fascinating friendship (and possibly infatuation, on Arvin’s part) between Arvin and David Lilienthal, Arvin’s best friend from boyhood and one of the architects of the New Deal. Arvin wrote the letter discussed earlier about being called to criticism to Lilienthal. Public life was certainly not for Arvin: he really did live in an ivory tower, happiest in his Northampton apartment or walking the grounds at the Yaddo artist colony. Yaddo was where Arvin met several key people in his life, including Carson McCullers and a very young and not yet published Truman Capote, with whom he had a romantic relationship. Arvin was smitten with Capote from the first; his boyish, flamboyant, exotic Southern charm coupled with his enormous talent made him irresistible. In the throes of their affair he wrote in a letter to Capote, “I love you dearly, and if you wish, I will write that over and over again until this page is filled up, and many more pages, like a bad boy kept in after school, whose teacher (in some perverse way) wishes to make him happy instead of wretched.” Arvin does not think their love is bad. Quite the contrary, Capote helps him to overcome his sexual shame and explore the nature of his desire. His cruising days began after their liaison. And though the affair ends, in part because Arvin will not leave Northampton, Capote remains a close friend and stalwart supporter until Arvin’s death in 1963.
Werth plays up the idea of concealment and secrets in Arvin’ s story — and there is plenty for him to reveal, as little of it has been previously told — but he does not venture a more theoretical reading of Arvin’s double life. Academics are required to lead double lives: teaching and writing, after all, are separate activities, and it’s only the vagaries of the current system that university professors work under that harnesses one obligation to another. It is tempting to redraw the public and private aspects of the career to parallel the division in the work for these men whose lives were so sharply divided, whose private worlds involved elaborate hiding and scheming. There is obvious irony in books, the currency by which Arvin made his reputation, as his undoing. Werth’s book begins and culminates in the materialization of Arvin’s worst fears: he is the victim of a “pink scare,” the result of some absurdly stringent Massachusetts pornography statutes, and is arrested for organized trafficking in pornography, a false charge. Arvin certainly had some, but it was anything but organized, just a smattering of erotica, some sent from Europe by Capote, and a few random muscle magazines. It surprised no one, especially Arvin, to be in trouble with the law and the university for what might be deemed his “lifestyle,” though Werth helpfully points out that his detractors should have been glad that the materials found were all homosexual in nature, so students would be safe among the sexual predators of Smith. What does surprise now, and did then, was that Arvin named the names of the colleagues with whom he had viewed and shared the material in question with very little pressure from the police. Exposure revealed his cowardice, or encouraged the desire for punishment after all of the years of sin and secrecy.
It can also be argued that Arvin, after living a life founded on uncovering some social and literary truth, might have been only too willing to participate in another. Criticism, after all, is a bit like cruising, looking for secret cues and markers of the inclination to be interpreted. It’s also an uncovering of sorts, an exposing of ideas that writers may or may not have been aware of planting within the form of their works. The meeting of eyes across a barroom, or the turn of a torso in a rest stop bathroom, invites the same kind of scrutiny, the same invitation to make good on deeply suppressed desire. Brooks wrote, in an essay called “Our Critics,” that the object of Americanist criticism is always America, no matter which writer one purports to be analyzing. It is perhaps just as true to speculate that the object of criticism is always, in some way, the critic.
Both Arvin and Matthiessen had a passion for Whitman, the poet who celebrated both his uniqueness and his affection for his fellow man. The feeling was justified: Whitman’s poems are easy to lose oneself in and force the reader to identify with the all-encompassing poet. Criticism, for all of its consuming qualities, is much harder to fall into, both as a reader and a writer. Doing it requires deliberate thought, method, and a level of self-consciousness that can be crippling, or, at the very least, quite depressing. Though these two critics did turn to themselves and their national identity as a way to make a career, their self-loathing ultimately outweighed their self-love. In yet another casting off of the yoke of the previous generation, the Americanist critics who followed Arvin and Mattheissen’s generation turned away from materialism and history to myths and symbols, captivated by the whiteness of a whale and the brilliant allegory of a red letter.
Art: Portrait of Van Wyck Brooks by John Butler Yeats